Unmanly: A Perceptive Analysis

The Atlantic continues to publish some of the most thoughtful articles to be found anywhere. One recent essay was by Tom Nichols, whose book The Death of Expertise I found illuminating; in the article, Nichols pointed to the disconnect between the historic definition of masculinity held by Trump’s working-class base and the President’s daily behaviors.

Here’s his thesis/question:

Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity….Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.

Nichols identifies himself as a product of the working class, and points to the values he grew up with: “a culture that looks down upon lying, cheating, and bragging, especially about sex or courage,” admiration for “understated swagger, rock-solid confidence, and quiet reserve.” The men Nichols grew up with believed strongly that a man’s word is his bond, and that a handshake means something.

These qualities and values–it is almost too obvious to note–are not elements of Trump’s persona.

And yet, many of these same men expect none of those characteristics from Trump, who is a vain, cowardly, lying, vulgar, jabbering blowhard. Put another way, as a question I have asked many of the men I know: Is Trump a man your father and grandfather would have respected?

Nichols goes through the various attributes of masculinity purportedly valued by working class men, and points to the obvious: Trump has none of them. His ultimate conclusion is that Trump’s lack of masculinity is excused because he’s not seen as a man. He is a boy.

It should not be a surprise then, that Trump is a hero to a culture in which so many men are already trapped in perpetual adolescence. And especially for men who feel like life might have passed them by, whose fondest memories are rooted somewhere in their own personal Wonder Years from elementary school until high-school graduation, Trump is a walking permission slip to shrug off the responsibilities of manhood.

The appeal to indulge in such hypocrisy must be enormous. Cheat on your wife? No problem. You can trade her in for a hot foreign model 20 years younger. Is being a father to your children too onerous a burden on your schedule? Let the mothers raise them. Money troubles? Everyone has them; just tell your father to write you another check. Upset that your town or your workplace has become more diverse? Get it off your chest: Rail about women and Mexicans and African Americans at will and dare anyone to contradict you….

In the end, Trump will continue to act like a little boy, and his base, the voters who will stay with him to the end, will excuse him. When a grown man brags about being brave, it is unmanly and distasteful; when a little boy pulls out a cardboard sword and ties a towel around his neck like a cape, it’s endearing. When a rich and powerful old man whines about how unfairly he is being treated, we scowl and judge; when a little boy snuffles in his tears and says that he was bullied—treated worse than Abraham Lincoln, even—we comfort.

Donald Trump is unmanly because he has never chosen to become a man. He has weathered few trials that create an adult of any kind. He is, instead, working-class America’s dysfunctional son, and his supporters, male and female alike, have become the worried parent explaining what a good boy he is to terrorized teachers even while he continues to set fires in the hallway right outside.

When you think about it, this is a pretty stunning indictment of the men who make up Trump’s base. (Nichols readily admits it doesn’t explain the working class women who support Trump, but also notes that their numbers are shrinking.) It joins other efforts to explain what so many of us consider otherwise inexplicable–the devotion of distressing numbers of Americans to a man who constantly shows us that he is an inadequate and thoroughly horrible human being.

The bottom line: Whether Trump’s base is essentially racist or adolescent or both, it isn’t going anywhere. The rest of us have to work to ensure that adult, non-racist Americans turn out massively in November–and that America holds a fair and orderly election that month.


  1. I think it might be simpler than that. Trump has money. He’s famously wealthy. Whether he really is or not is immaterial. Her lives a rich man’s life. In the US the wealthy are axiomatically good/better than everyone else. Trump can do no wrong in the eyes of those who wish they had his life.

  2. And we need to (somehow) insure that there is a free and fair election process in all 50 states

  3. Trump gives American males permission to perpetuate their vulgar adolescent fantasies. The identities of the women who tolerate or participate in similar behavior reflect the normative dominance of male adolescence in their culture. MAGA gimme caps are a hook, a brand, a badge of authority handed down by a man who claims to understand their long suffering and will re-empower them and “make America great again” in their image. What other president has outspokenly fostered such a cause? They’ll support anyone, even the ineffectual nancy boy Donald Trump, who “feeds their antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” They aren’t looking for a personal role model, they’re looking for permission.

  4. The incumbent shows and demonstrates behavior of a wounded narcissist. Honor, earned respect, paying dues to the greater good of society including military service, is just not in his DNA. His rise to power reveals the weaknesses of 21st Century persona of a significant segment of Americana. There will be a heavy price paid by future generations. The secrecy and extravagant deception as to his burial site second only to Hoffa.

  5. This blog today is the best explanation I’ve read for Trump’s acolytes being so blind. I wonder if all cults have some form of these traits in their leaders.

    My “favorite” FBI agent and his alleged genius wife fall into this Trump is the one category absolutely. The “working-class America’s dysfunctional son,” is the perfect line description.

    Your closing paragraph is more salient than ever. Trump as president is the same as giving that 10 year-old the keys to a Ferrari; sooner or later, he will wrap it around a tree. That Ferrari is the United States, and the tree is what destroys the “administrative state”.

  6. There is no end of explanations for 45 and for his minions. What we must have is an end to his Presidency and the sooner the better.

  7. Trump appeals to the desire for “certainty” in a perverse way. Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter both create a lot of ambiguity. He’s a “man” in that he’s “decisive” – in that his statements are clear-cut and direct (perverse yes, but). The obvious truth that his “facts” are irrelevant in that his appeal is totally to emotion, not intellect. Hatred, vulgarity, even “making mistakes” – shows that he is not only “a man”, but “the man”. Biden is a p_s_y in this perspective – a weak, gay, effete person, not a man.

  8. Dirk; Trump’s CLAIMS of wealth have yet to be proven by release of his tax forms, probably to hide where what money he does have comes from. His Atlantic City casino/hotel is slated for demolition, the New York City Trump Tower reportedly has many vacancies, his Scotland Trump Tower still owes that country for police protection for Pence’s visit and he has numerous bankruptcies in his lurid past of his admitted “pussy grabbing”. His “fame” is his self-produced TV program and often paid-for (IF he paid the fee) appearances in person or name recognition in movies and TV programs.

    He publicly supports police abuse and bullying of unarmed and often innocent victims of police abuse of power; he used Secret Service to forcefully using weapons to remove innocent protesters to clear his path to pose with an upside down Bible in front of St. John’s Church uninvited and disrespecting the Bishop. He refuses to wear a mask in public during the Covid-19 Pandemic, on Saturday during his commencement speech at West Point he needed both hands to hold a small glass of water to drink and shuffled down the ramp as he left the stage. He pays supporters at rallies and provided his caps, tee shirts and signs for those seen behind him to applaud and cheer him…on cue. He had to pay $120,000 to a porn star to keep her quiet about his ability to perform sexually only once during their first encounter and she turned him down for sex on their 2nd encounter after watching an episode of Shark Tank on TV.

    Republicans are stuck with him and his image of “masculinity” while wielding the power of the almighty dollars belonging to the 1% and Corporate America to maintain their current hold on the government long enough to deconstruct it to meet their need to become wealthier while picking the pockets of middle and low-income Americans as they deny health care and Trump’s ignoring of warnings brought this nation to to highest level of coronavirus victims in the world while keeping “his” stockpile of masks, medical testing and equipment from use by hospitals and first responders. All of this is supported by a few real Republicans; led by Mitch McConnell and those in the Senate who fear losing their own money and position if they oppose either of them.

    Trump is fat, spray-tanned with his long, thinning hair combed to cover his scalp as he wears his own manufactured in China over-long red ties pointing to the area of his anatomy he considers to be his manhood. The book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”; a compilation of diagnoses by TWENTY-SEVEN psychiatrists and mental health workers who used every term known to the American Psychiatric Association to describe Trump but the term “manly” is not one of them.

    Theresa Bowers; comment; “Sadly, this all fits too well.” regarding today’s blog is the sad truth we struggle to live with today.

    Whatta Guy!

  9. Trump is a silver spoon — not a working man. Trump has used his money and the power that comes with it to avoid every significant learning opportunity presented to him. When you ignore the growth opportunities, guess what?

    You are stuck in adolescence. There is no maturation process. I see the same thing in many men who I went to school within Indiana.

    The avid Trump supporters are lawyers and truck drivers, but they still haven’t grown up much at all since high school and have avoided a diverse culture (not left Indiana). When their beliefs are challenged, they want to use their fists to settle matters. These are men approaching their 60s. They are angry because they are frustrated.

    What’s the famous expression — “Misery loves company.”

    What I find hilarious is they are still surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals from high school. Since the members of the clique endorse each other’s bullshit, guess what?

    Because of the above, they are stuck! Look at all the staff who has resigned or been fired from Trump’s clique. He only accepts sycophants — blind loyalty. If you challenge Trump, you’re fired!

  10. Here is a description from an article that seems all to true these days:

    He shared screenshots of his mother’s Facebook profile, littered with Alt-Right talking points, discriminatory memes, and effusive tributes to the President—always juxtaposed with hateful diatribes regarding our former President. The racism and homophobia and Islamophobia she generates every day is both shocking and devastating to her adult son.

    “She just believes every word out of his mouth, everything she watches on FoxNews.” he said. “I can’t reason with her. It’s like talking to someone who’s been brainwashed. She isn’t the mother I grew up with.”

    This is how cults work. They gradually alter people’s brains, attuning them to a singular voice, and weaponizing them against any dissenting opinions. To their manipulated minds, efforts to reach them with objective truth become acts of aggression against the one they see as divine—and trigger an ever-more passionate affection toward their leader. They will defend (even to relational death with people they once loved) that one person.

    America is in a cultic crisis, and Trumpism is the cult. There is no other way to approach these days.

    When you believe one man above Science, above our Intelligence agencies, above former CIA directors and retired generals and revered journalists—when you believe that one man above even your own eyes and ears—you are fully indoctrinated.


    The Trumpet has captured the homophobic, racist, ethnocentric’s, anti-feminists, among Americans, add to these groups the evangelical bible thumper’s. The Trumpet is the strong man, the Macho Man of Male Authoritarianism. > Fear is at the root of his Trumpet Cult.

    We knew these people were out there. At least from my own perspective, I had no idea of the great numbers of them. The Trumpet has been a catalyst (a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change). The Trumpet has managed to merge all these negative people and given them a “voice”.

  11. With a member of my family having been diagnosed as being narcissistic, I would suggest that a more scientific view fits. To classify someone with such traits as being of a certain social class is just plain old stereotyping and acting a bit like him.

  12. Has anyone noticed the proliferation of young women acting as White House spokespersons? They are clones of Kellyanne Conway, and their approach is to blather nonsensically non-stop, so that no response can be made. The most recent one I saw was Jenna Somebody on Brian Steltner’s “Reliable Sources”. She was explaining why CNN had to be sued by the Trump Org for reporting a poll indicating Trump 14 points behind Biden. The poll supposedly didn’t meet scientific standards; more importantly it contradicted polls that favored trump. This woman was incredible–spoke like her brain to mouth time was in nanoseconds, though she wasn’t coherent. I suspect we are going to see more of this kind of thing in the coming months. I don’t think any news network should allow her airtime (of course, Fox will).

  13. Hire lawyers, accountants, Public Relations, bodyguards and financial managers to maintain your father’s wealth, hang a beautiful woman on your arm held there by a prenup, manage your brand as the epitome of what your are, and coast through life. Play the times that you coast through.

    There, I’ve written most of Trump’s biography.

    For the last chapter I am considering the immortal words of Warren Zevon.

    “Send lawyers, guns and money,
    The shit has hit the fan.”

  14. I think the Trump minions have always been among us – research shows that about 25% of any given population is drawn to authoritarian figures. They just feel more free to be open about it now that Trump has the stage. The rest of us need to remember that we cannot expect rational thinking from irrational folks and get out the vote in November.

  15. Trump’s base may “purport” to hold manly expectations of themselves, but in reality they do not. They aspire to the same mistaken vision of adulthood that many of the rest of us do.

    Many of us and nearly all of Trump’s base as adolescents thought of adulthood as that arbitrary time when a person CAN BE THE CHILD THEY ALWAYS WANTED TO BE BUT WERE RESTRAINED BY PARENTS, SCHOOLS AND LACK OF MONEY. Someone like Trump was bound to become their hero. He epitomizes their ambition.

    Just attain the age of 18 and get a job or inherit that trust fund. Then you can buy all the toys you can pay for. Get barf-drunk at will. BE THE CHILD YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE. Someone like Trump was bound to become their hero. He epitomizes their ambition.

    Cut work. Curse. Be sloppy. BE THE CHILD YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE. Someone like Trump was bound to become their hero. He epitomizes their ambition.

    Grow that beard. Get that tattoo. Go to that brothel. Wear those slutty clothes. BE THE CHILD YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE. Someone like Trump was bound to become their hero. He epitomizes their ambition.

    Skip those chores. Cheat the family. Drive like a demon. Mistreat women. Make fools of men. Decline even the responsibilities-chores-expectations-homework expected of a teen. Be free of supervision and oversight. BE THE CHILD YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE. Someone like Trump was bound to become their hero. He epitomizes their ambition.

    Very few of us ever wanted to become an adult. We wanted to “come of age” but not adulthood. Eighteen became the AGE OF IRRESPONSIBILITY. Our bosses became our new parents, much more permissive than the former parents. Our employers took care of our rent, our food, our transportation, our medical bills.

    What a grand vision! Working for someone else. The promised land of complete irresponsibility. About the only exception to this was the occasional individual who aspired to own a business, which often but not always requires adult responsibilities.

    In my book, Trump never owned a business. He was employed by the money he inherited. It enabled him to play mansion, play businessman, pretend responsibilities, pretend achievement…and be the child he always wanted to be. Our hero.

  16. As an adolescent, why would anyone want to grow up?

    As married with children, how could you not grow up?

    Trump shows us how not to grow up if money is no object.

  17. Trump is a narcissist and male narcissists act like spoiled man-boys who will stop at nothing to get their way or “win.” This is more a narcissist problem than a maturity problem.

    Working-class guys like him purely because he does what they’ve been dreaming about doing at their kitchen tables and bar stools for decades. Got a problem with peaceful protesters blocking the road? Drive through them they say. Trump’s solution? Bring out the big-gun riot gear to clear them. Every solution to a perceived problem is excessive and disregards consequences. In another time it would have been considered bs-ing, but now anything is possible.

    Fox News’s part in this is that they play into their viewers’ worst instincts and act as an organizer that provides the talking points. I, too, believe that they are perpetuating a cult, but it’s a willing cult whose feet are so embedded in concrete that closing down Fox News will be the only way to begin to break it up. Voting Trump out of office won’t solve the problem.

  18. He’s has money and he talks like he’s a butt-kicker. Angry working-class men like that he’s angry at all the targets they’re angry with. He’s like the guy you go out drinking with on Thursday night to complain about how messed up the world is and then head back in to your 9-5 to pick up your paycheck the next day. He talks the talk and that’s enough for these guys.

  19. Well, unlike our rough-and-tumble POTUS-/s

    Chief Justice Roberts and Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch broke with the right and POTUS in their decision to prevent the LGBTQ community from being discriminated against in hiring and workplace rights. This is going to be huge! Donald Trump is going to have to explain this to the evangelical tough guys who like to pick on everyone that’s not like themselves. Why did his guy on the Supreme Court side with the liberals? It just shows how impotent the POTUS is right now! But, like a wounded animal, he’s going to start swinging wildly lashing out everywhere. So, are the real men going to go along with their idol? Or are they going to stand up like real men? Well, I can guarantee, those real men are few and far between! If they’re not carrying around a military style rifle or wearing belts of ammunition looking like a character out of a B-movie. Those are the ones who are admired as real men, LOL! Afraid of their own shadow!

    This is how they envision real men, this is how real men in their mind act! Overwhelming force to make up for the shortage in other areas if you know what I mean! The tough guys that I’ve worked with over the years, are exactly that way! They’ll smile on someone’s face, then during the coffee clutch, they are full of verbose hatred!
    They love to see themselves as some sort of Terminator/Don Juan/Einstein hybrid, LOL, when it’s more like Barney Fife/Gomer Pyle/Jethro Bodine hybrid! It is what it is, they’re all legends in their own mind!

    This decision by the Supreme Court is going to really dent the evangelical right, all of those tough guys talk and all of that smack, all of the discrimination from places of business, now they’re going to get their backsides sued off. Soon, there’s going to be tons of lawsuits, because people are going to be applying for jobs in mass, and when they are discriminated against, well, the whining and wailing is going to be epic.

  20. Sheila: wonderful analysis, as usual. Trump is damaged goods, to be sure, and he is all of those things you said: liar, immature, narcissist, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, and probably nowhere near as rich as the fake persona he nurtures. But, here’s my question: what the hell is wrong with Mikey Pence? I have never liked, respected, nor voted for Pence, and I believe he’s always been just an ambitious boob–not very bright or accomplished and willing to hand out tax breaks and roll back consumer protection, environmental and other citizen protections in exchange for the title. However, he’s never been identified as a narcissist, liar, racist, misogynist or the other things Trump is. His presence on the Republican ticket has always been to pander to Evangelicals. Nevertheless, hasn’t he ever heard of HYPOCRISY, or the requirement that Christians should call out all of the bad things that Trump displays? Is Pence that needy of a title? If so, that, too, is a sin. Why don’t Evangelicals see this?

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